Old Plaque DNA in 6th Century Teeth May Lead to New Strains Today

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dna21Several recent science articles focus on new discoveries that bring forth concerns about old bacteria causing many deaths in the past could lead to new bacteria that may cause future outbreaks. Researchers have found tiny bits of DNA in the teeth of two German victims of the Justinian plague from around 1,500 years ago. Scientists say strains of the same plague resulted in two of the world’s deadliest pandemics in history. The researchers used these tiny bits of DNA to reconstruct the genome of the oldest known bacteria, concluding that it was one strain of Yersinia pestis, the same bacteria that caused the Black Death during medieval Europe.

The results of the study, performed by researchers at McMaster University Ancient DNA Centre in Hamilton, Canada, were published in the online science journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. The Justinian Plague is believed to have killed half the world’s population as it spread across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The Black Death also killed about 50 million people in Europe during a four year span of the 14th Century.

The plague is typically spread to humans by rodents who carry infected fleas. The history of the bacteria shows that the plague has made the jump to humans on numerous occasions, unlike a fluke that occurred only one time. Researchers feel that with humans infringing on rodents’ territory, we will likely get more exposure to them in the near future. While there is always the possibility of a modern-day plague, antibiotics should be able to bring it to a halt. One factor that could complicate things would be the development of an airborne version that would result in a much faster death, after infection took place.

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